‘Bring It On,'Democrats Tell GOP Overtime Opponents

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By Ben Penn and Chris Opfer

May 20 — Republicans are already fighting to block the Labor Department's overtime rule, much to the delight of rivals across the aisle who expect to pounce on the issue on the campaign trail.

“Our view would be—bring it on,” Robert Creamer, a veteran Democratic strategist, said of the GOP's work to stop or slow the new rule. “If they want to try to take overtime pay away from lots of middle-class people, be my guest.”

Republicans in the Capitol are fast at work trying to undo the rule, while at the same time looking to make the case to voters that more overtime means less career advancement and even job losses. That's a more nuanced pitch than for Democrats, who say the new rule will put more money in workers' pockets.

“There’s an old adage in politics: If you’re explaining, then you’re losing,” Vincent Harris, who served as chief digital strategist for Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) White House run, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think absolutely that this issue puts Republicans on the defense, and it’s an issue that is going to be used in a variety of races up and down the ballot.”

The new rule (RIN:1235-AA11) more than doubles the salary threshold under which workers are automatically eligible for time-and-a-half wages for work hours logged beyond 40 each week. The threshold, now set at about $47,500, will also increase every three years.

Clear Case for Democrats

It's hardly an accident that the Labor Department, which unveiled the new rule earlier this week (95 DLR AA-1, 5/17/16), timed the ambitious plan to bolster some 4.2 million workers' paychecks in the middle of an election year.

The rule is considered a vital piece of the Obama administration's working families agenda. Democrats running for office as high as the presidency can use it to draw some contrast with their opponents in the run-up to balloting.

The chance for Democrats to debate the issue on the campaign trail has progressives practically salivating.

Asked about GOP attempts to thwart the rule, entrepreneur Nick Hanauer told Bloomberg BNA: “Good God I hope they do. It's hard to imagine that anybody in this day and age could be that stupid—but if there's one thing I've learned to count on it is how stupid those people can be.”

During “tons of communication” Hanauer said he's had with the Obama administration, he has advocated for aggressive policies to offset wage suppression.

The case for Democrats is pretty straightforward: With a few pen strokes, the Obama administration is making millions of workers newly eligible for time-and-a-half pay.

“I think Americans understand very well what it means to be working a lot of hours” without extra compensation, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg BNA, shortly before the White House announced the rule.

“This is a very significant tool for Democrats to use on a campaign trail for sure,” said Takano, who sits on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He has three GOP challengers hoping to unseat him in November.

Republicans Backing Small Business

Republicans and other opponents of the rule say it will backfire by driving up payroll costs for employers, including smaller businesses and nonprofit organizations. They say many of those employers will respond by cutting jobs and trimming hours.

Not everyone is convinced they're playing a losing hand.

“I don’t think it’s hard to make the sale to voters that overregulation generally has been a big burden for the economy,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think this becomes part of that larger narrative.”

Blunt, who is expected to retain his seat in the November elections, and other GOP lawmakers have branded the new rule as a classic example of Obama administration overreach. They're banking on voters who want Uncle Sam to take a more hands-off approach, whether that's on regulating business, levying taxes or managing health-care systems.

Harris, who ran digital operations for the Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry presidential campaigns, said he also expects presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump and other Republican candidates to focus on soaring new costs for “mom and pops.” He said that tack pairs well with Trump's “populist” message.

“I think that Donald Trump has projected his candidacy as one for the middle class, whether it’s on trade or some of the other issues he’s running on,” Harris said.

Trump campaign representatives didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for comment on the overtime rule.

Democrats Positioned to Attack

Experienced Democratic strategists are confident they have the political upper hand.

“Given the context in which this regulation is coming out, where the country is focused on inequality and is focused on how the middle class is struggling,” discussing expanded access to overtime wages “can definitely be a positive for candidates,” Maria Echaveste, who was deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, told Bloomberg BNA.

Echaveste, now a senior adviser and co-founder of lobbying firm NVG, was also administrator of the DOL's Wage and Hour Division under Clinton.

In addition to focusing on the rule's positives for workers, there's also an opportunity for Democrats to go on the attack, said Creamer, a general consultant at Americans United for Change.

A candidate running against someone opposed to the overtime regulation would be “well-positioned” to say “this politician wants people to work overtime for nothing, basically,” Creamer told Bloomberg BNA.

“That will have a lot of saliency. You’re basically saying, this guy is nothing but a shill for big companies,” said Creamer, who consulted on President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

Creamer said he has the polling data to back up his contentions. He pointed to a 2015 survey from Public Policy Polling showing 64 percent of registered voters would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports “substantially” raising the salary threshold for overtime exemption, while 17 percent said they'd be less likely.

Parallels are often drawn between the overtime rule and raising the minimum wage, a policy that even voters in red states have approved as a ballot initiative.

Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, a partner with Hart Research Associates, said a greater share of Americans will relate to the topic of increasing overtime access than to minimum wage hikes.

Democratic candidates who talk about boosting the federal pay floor are challenged by the reality that it only directly impacts a small share of voters, who typically earn well above the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, Molyneux told Bloomberg BNA.

But the overtime policy offers solutions “for a more moderate group” of voter incomes, making it “powerful for a much larger, potentially, group of voters than” a minimum wage increase, added Molyneux, whose clients include the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Clinton Versus Trump on Overtime

Whether the DOL regulation catches fire in the race for the highest office in the land is difficult to assess.

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has issued statements applauding the Obama administration for the overtime effort, but she doesn't appear to have incorporated it into her stump speech.

Trump hasn't publicly commented on the rule.

Creamer said it's tough to predict how much traction overtime will gain in the presidential battle. Still, he expects Democratic consultants to make the issue a major talking point.

Echaveste, the former Bill Clinton adviser, when asked if Hillary Clinton will be highlighting the overtime rule on the campaign trail, responded, “I'm not involved in the campaign and I'm not giving advice, but I certainly hope so.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com and Chris Opfer in Washington at copfer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com